Eyes of the cyclone
I’m a philosopher. It’s not surprising, given my life. What’s surprising is that so many evade becoming philosophers, given their lives, your life, our lives.
I live in a tower, as is fitting. I have windows where the rust has eaten through the metal. The biggest hole, near the top, is where I sit to watch. I climb up the ladder and sit on the platform I wedged into place. In the Build-up, I can only stay up there for an hour after sunrise, and at night. In the Dry, sometimes it is cool enough all day. And when it rains and rains in February, I could stay all the time, except for the drips. And not being able to see anyone through the rain. And not being able to hear, because even my hyper-sensitive hearing is saturated by the water pounding on the metal.
So when it’s too hot or raining, I go to my green cave on the nature strip. But even with the foliage dense around me, it isn’t as safe as the tower. Someone – or their dog – might come exploring, and move the branches from the entrance, and then where would I be?
Only one of them, the boy, has seen me so far. Gustav and Inge walk purposefully down the road, they never look left or right, not even at the other houses. If Debbie and Andrew are meandering along, Inge and Gustav swerve and pass, without acknowledgement, as though radar alerts them to an obstacle. And the old man from the next block, he is too sad to be curious about me, or Gustav and Inge, or Debbie and Andrew in their raucous merriment.
So much for rural neighbourliness. I am the only one in this close who pays any attention to anyone else. I, and the boy, Zac. But no-one pays attention to him, the silent youngest of Debbie and Andrew’s tumultuous mob. Zac, in ragged shorts, skinny ribs protruding, is clearly a philosopher.
It was early evening when I found he was watching me. I was carefully sliding out of the cave, and there he was, across the driveway, concealed between a tree and the fence of his house. He was sitting, legs crossed, waiting. He must have been there for hours. He must have seen me going in, and just waited for me to come out.
I was afraid. I know, I have studied and reflected on fear, its many causes, ways to avoid it, ways to accept it. But it swoops down anyway, its claws stabbing into my heart, neither avoided nor accepted. But when the child made no move, said no words, the talons released a little. I stood, he sat, we watched each other. No smiling, no overtures. And I knew he was a philosopher, and there was nothing to fear. It still felt uncomfortable, walking back towards my tower, with eyes following invisible me; even a philosopher’s eyes.
I am Zac. I watch, I say nothing. Sometimes I play with my brothers and sisters. But they don’t need me. I’m boring. I stop in the middle of games to watch and listen. Why not? It is the games that are boring, not the people who play them. The best game is watching and listening to the players. You’d think they’d know this. They spend hours and hours watching players on TV, listening to players on iPods. But they haven’t worked it out. I don’t know why. It is one of the things I think about.
My Mum and Dad watch each other. They watch carefully, but they pretend they are just having fun. Until one sees a play that the other doesn’t like, and all the fun is gone, and becomes a storm, howling and hurling, like a cyclone. And the others scream and hide, spinning around them.
I know about cyclones. They have a calm centre, an eye. I am the eye of our cyclones. I watch, I am calm. In my space all is still, while things around are pulled apart. The old witch in the metal tower on the bend, I think she is an eye too. But an eye that shivers away, how she hides from us all. Then I thought maybe she is the eye of a bigger cyclone than mine. So I watch her. If she is in a bigger cyclone, she is a bigger eye. The pulling apart could be further away. And more interesting. If I watch I will see it.
I am not afraid to die. I have considered it from every angle, and death itself is not fearsome. Pain, now, that is fearsome, and abuse from the strong. And if you have attachments to others, the pain of leaving them alone.
Which is why my philosophy is to ensure that these pains do not ensue; I have no attachment to others, and give them no cause to abuse me.
The last thing I need here, as I waste away, is another philosopher attaching his eye to me.
A pupil! What could be worse than that? Many philosophers have had pupils, of course. But at this stage, when I am content with how little and how much I know, it is too much for me.
He is so young. He may forget about me. He will forget, in only a few years, when his body grows and floods him with those passions he so calmly witnesses today. But for now, time stretches in its infinite presence, and I know the boy ties himself to me.
I creep through the dark rain to stroke the metal walls. I would love a silent tower like this. There is no quiet place in my house, my room bursting with brothers. There is space on the block, but still the others are everywhere, and dogs, cats, chooks. It is not easy to be the eye. I must build a cave like the witch’s. I would love a tower made out of cool white stone …but it might draw people in when I want them to circle away on their windy paths so I can watch them. A nasty old tower like this might keep them away.
But it hasn’t kept me away.
I am watching him. He thinks I am in there, but how could I be, with so much drumming and leaking around me? I am under my tarpaulins, strung from the trees, and dry, and the saturated boy is walking around my home.
In that nonsensical home of his, no-one has eyes enough to see their child sneak out in the night to annoy the neighbours. What if I was a mad woman? What if I was a cannibal – easier to eat a boy than struggle down to the store. Although, such a skinny boy…
I should leap out and shriek that at him and he wouldn’t come back then.
But how he examines the tower, so carefully, so longingly.
I am not going to eat him. As long as he doesn’t go inside.
The door is a rent near the ground. Even I have to bend to creep in, and watch my feet on the sharp spikes that stick up. The witch must step carefully.
It smells in here. Cool, wet, musty. The air must be heavy brown with rust. The ground is muddy. Water flows down the sides. She is lucky, it doesn’t pour form the top, only in drops and drips. The drips are landing on something, somethings, further up. I can’t see. But here is a ladder. Dare I go up the ladder in the dark? What will I find? Where does she sleep?
He jumps, freezes.
I have not spoken in so long, my voice cracks.
“What are you doing here?”
He turns to face me.
“What are you doing here?” he asks.
“This is my home.”
“What are you doing here?”
“That’s enough! Go!” As if I need a question like that, at this stage.
He backs away from me, but he keeps eyes on me as long as he can. His calm, calm eyes.
“No. Don’t go. Sit.”
He does not even look for somewhere to sit. He slides down onto the muddy concrete as if it were silken cushions.
“Why did you come?” I ask, although I already know the answer.
“For the same reason as you,” he says.
I shake my head. “You are too young.”
He turns his chin towards his home, blaring even through the rain with light and noise.
“Not really,” he says.
And I know age has nothing to do with it. I sigh. “What do you want here? What do you want with me?”
I look at him a long time.
“Yes,” I say. “But why not next door then? Why not the old man?”
“That is not nothing,” he says. “That is something – sadness.”
“Yes. You are not sad. You are sometimes afraid. But you are not sad.”
“And you? Are you sad?”
“Not usually.” He drops his eyes. “Sometimes.”
“At home, everyone ignores me. That is what I want. But at school – ”
Ah yes, I recall school. A place where it is not permitted to leave a philosopher in his attachment to peace. But then again, I thought I had been left to my attachment. It is always fragile.
The rain is easing, pattering instead of pounding. Soon it will trickle away and the heat will return.
“Up here,” I say.
I start to mount the ladder. He follows, silent.
There are a number of platforms in my tower. On the first is my bedding, covered by tarps on a night like this. And on the second is my treasure.
A platform full of chests. I touch their edges. Some are wooden, some are metal. Much more solid than the tower.
The witch lights a candle, and I can see the closest chest, staring at me out of the dark. It is carved into faces, ugly faces with wide open eyes and tongues that stick right out of their mouths. She opens the lid. A dry smell of dust comes from it, floating into the wetness all around me, coating inside my mouth with a different time.
“In here,” she says, “is all you need to learn. About nothing. In these,” she points round the platform, “is all I have to teach you. The Philosophy of the East. The Philosophy of the West. The Philosophy of the Peoples of Forever. The Philosophy of the North and of the South. And the Philosophy of Today. Sometimes philosophy creates for itself other names, magic, religion, science.”
Then she laughs.
“But Zac – all this philosophy will lead you to what you already know. Nothing. Are you sure you want to learn it?”
“Instead of school?” and my heart gives a leap.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if it will be allowed.”
“Debbie and Andrew would allow it.”
“But they are not all.”
“Please. Can we try?”
And so, as I knew it would, the calm has gone from his eyes, and there is pleading in them and desire. And what is in my eyes? Only what is in my heart. I long to help him. What folly is this?
“I cannot come to your house,” I say, and my heart is in my throat. “Your…mother… you must bring her to my door.”
He leaps up.
“Not now, child! Would you wake her from her bed with madness? Tomorrow, at a quiet time.”
“There are no quiet times.”
Today the rain has eased, but clouds swirling dark and light cover the sky. There is more wind. The boy tows Debbie through it to my door.
I meet them there. I try not to tremble.
“Zac says you’re a teacher?” She is smoking, and her voice is deep and dry.
“Yes.” Teacher? Philosopher? What’s the difference?
“And he said you’ll teach him so he doesn’t have to go to school?”
“He wants to learn.”
She snorts at that, clouts Zac over the head. “That’s not what they say when they drag me down to that school.”
“They don’t teach what he wants to learn.”
“So. What do you want to teach him?”
Can I dare say nothing?
“Everything he needs to know.”
“Hmmph. You want paid?”
“I’ve nothing to do.”
She looks me up and down.
“I won’t hurt him. I don’t like…children. I like to think. So does he.”
“You better not hurt him,” she says. “There’s enough of us. We’ll take you – and this – apart.”
I shiver. She says ‘we will’, not ‘we could’. People have before. I look at the boy. Is he worth it?
Today he is calm again. But a different kind of calm. A bursting, living, glowing calm. Even Debbie can see it.
“We’ll give it a try,” she says. “I guess after a while they’ll come looking for him from school. I’ll leave you to handle that, since you’re the teacher.”
I shiver again. School officials – then what? For this?
“You may as well start now,” says Debbie. And she walks off and leaves me with the boy.
I start to go inside.
“No,” she says. “We don’t start in there. We start out here.”
“But I know out here.”
“No. Not yet,” she says.
The wind is picking up.
“You know there’s a cyclone warning?” says Zac.
I stand up. How could I not know? Because I haven’t been watching. Because I’ve been thinking. And still I’m thinking, about the boy, not about what I am showing him. I should have still been watching the world, instead I am tuned in, focussed on a dark head and eager eyes.
“Why did Debbie bring you here, then?”
He shrugs. “She’s packing up for the cyclone.”
“You can help me pack up then.”
“Oh.” He is disappointed.
“Only these tarps and my mattress to go inside. If it will make any difference.”
We move the tarps inside. We climb up the platforms and tie them over the rusty windows. I don’t think she could have done this without me. Then the rain starts again, the sudden thick heavy rain.
“You’d better go home,” she says.
“They’ll come for me if they want me.”
“I don’t want you,” she says. “A boy in a cyclone. Psha.”
And he just sits and looks at me, and his eyes are calm again. No question, so I can answer.
“Without you, I sit here, I wait, whatever happens, happens.”
“Yes,” he says. “Whatever happens, happens.”
How does he know? When for so long through life I crouched, clinging, ducking as the very air grew wilder and wilder, ripping into me, no escape. Now I know it is here, the still centre. But it moves, just the same, and the chaos can always sweep back in.
“You don’t understand. You they will look for.”
“So whatever happens is not the same. You still just wait.”
“I don’t like them looking.”
“It is still just the same, or different. Whatever the end, we just wait.”
So there they wait. Perhaps the cyclone will encircle them and move on, perhaps not, as is the nature of cyclones.
Debbie and Andrew are drunk now and drifting to sleep. They have celebrated the gods of disorder, and in answer the empty casks whisper that all will be well, even the boy Debbie momentarily recalls is not at home…but somewhere as safe as can be.
The old man could not care about cyclones.
Gustav and Inge, pristinely prepared and as protected, watch tracking maps on screens, listen to warnings, advice, comment, for perhaps there is still more they could do to control the consequences of chaos. Perhaps there is. The fierceness that comes and goes from no movement, from a centre of supreme stillness, is teeming with numbers to measure: pressure, size, speed, direction – and surely knowing makes the difference.
The philosopher and the boy just wait, the eyes in this cyclone, the I’s in this story.